existentialist cafe

life is sacred

Tag: meditation

A mid-day walking meditation

Walking meditation is an old practice. In the Maha Satipatthana Sutta, it reads “a bhikkhu while walking knows ‘I am walking.'” The practice of kinhin interrupts extended periods of zazen and probably has, among other things, the practical purpose of stretching the legs. In my practice, I do sitting meditation in the morning; however, I find that at mid-day I am tired from working and need to be more active.

One day, I was thinking about my scattered brain, and it seemed that my desires were like sheep without a shepherd, running in all directions at once whenever they hear a noise or see a flashing light. This is the mind without wisdom. Desires, like sheep, do not know the thing they desire; they are dumb. Wisdom is a shepherd, who calms the flock and leads them to nourishing food and living waters. The mid-day walking meditation is a way to calm the flock of our desires after being exposed to many of sensations throughout the day, enough so that they are able to graze peacefully on good food without being startled.

Find somewhere you can walk uninterrupted for about fifteen minutes, or more, or less. Even if you only walk for five minutes, it is beneficial. The place preferably is pleasant to be in. A skilled shepherd finds nourishment everywhere, but as wisdom is being trained it is easier in pleasant places. Do not drink caffeine or other stimulant an hour before beginning.

At the start of the walk, set the intention to be simply present and aware, much as you would at the beginning of any other meditation. This intention is the voice of the shepherd, whose voice the sheep know and will follow.

As you walk simply take things as they are, without concern for them. Your thoughts should be allowed to drift easily, without being hurried or pushed. Take in your surroundings, but do not force them in. Simply permit them to enter your eyes, ears, nose, skin. Walk with an easy stride, with your back straight and your hands at your side. If you find that you are moving frantically or nervously, or are making an effort to fix your concentration, set your intention again. If you stop for a minute to absorb some particular thing, then stop for a minute to absorb that thing and then move on.

At the end of your walk, it may be a good time to read a few verses of sacred writing or poetry to ease the transition back into daily life.

Life is a mountain whose summit we are always trying to reach. It is surmised by many climbers that the mountain is of infinite height, as it is composed of an infinite number of cliffs. Others, though, have surmised that a short-cut could be found to the top.*

If each cliff is climbed in half the time as the previous, then an infinite number of cliffs could be scaled in twice the time that it takes to climb the first one.

Maybe the first is climbed in one year.

The second is climbed in half a year.

The third in 1/4 of a year.

The fourth in 1/8 of a year.

The fifth in 1/16 of a year.

The sixth in 1/32 of a year.

And so on.

If you add up all of these infinite cliffs, 1 + 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 + 1/16 + 1/32 + 1/64… 1/n = 2

Some have dismissed this as a mind game, with no bearing on the climbing of real cliffs.

Others, however, have taken up the game of paradox, and in fact argue that through extensive meditation on these paradoxes, one can begin to perceive the totality of the mountain, though in dim outline only. In fact, they argue that this mountain is not only infinitely large but infinitely small as well, and that it can be perceived in a sunflower, a bird flying south, or a drop of water falling into a tea cup.

Others have argued that anyone who perceived the mountain would always fail to perceive herself as well, and therefore taking in the whole at once would be impossible.

Still climbing.

*Rudy Rucker, “Infinity and the Mind.”

It occurred to me while I was at the bar that some goods can only be attained absent of the immediate intention to have that good. At the moment the most obvious one was humility. It is nice for me to decide that I am not a very humble person and would like to, and perhaps to carry that consciousness around with me and to set up trying to attain it; however in order to be humble it is necessary to lose a sense of myself as a person who is humble or not humble. Humility seems to be a virtue which happens vicariously, especially when the invest yourself fully in some worthy activity. It requires a certain kind of losing of preoccupation with the self and its status, but instead a face-to-face encounter with the greater-than. Humility is the limp that one gains in wrestling with an angel; it is not the blessing which one demands of the angel.

So people have told me that only when they no longer cared whether they would fall in love that they did. So others have told me that only when they have ceased being concerned with finding happiness that they found it.

Attention and consciousness is a mental program which is initiated by an unsettled state of affairs. Our focus is pulled onto that problem in an effort to detect the source and the solution. Self-consciousness is tripped when a problem with the self is detected. When you are not happy then you were aware of the thing called happiness, and you desire to be happy. Happiness is the one thing which utterly defines the situation you are in, and happiness as a goal fills up your field of consciousness. But if happiness can only be found by not seeking happiness, then you are in trouble. This may be way Zen Buddhism practices the attainment of non-attainment. What more do we have that we ought to give over? I’m afraid that the quest for self-actualization is in the end a vacuous quest. If the ‘self’ is what we aim for, then we should not be surprised if we end up thoroughly self-involved. But Jesus says, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.

in the year that king uzziah died…

When I was a senior in college and things had begun to weigh heavily on me I got in my car and drove north through Mercy County to the Polk water preserve with my binoculars. I left behind uncertain futures and strained friendships, and came for woods and water, and to look for birds. Houses, trees, and streams were painted with bright jewel tones, and the country roads wound through places I had not seen before. With the fresh new air in my face and the sweet scent of the countryside, the world seemed to conspire with me in my plan for rejuvenation.

I found the preserve without much trouble and parked my car in a small gravel lot on the edge of a green field. The old scarred signboard told me with faded paper that this place was open to hunting at other times of the year, and that there were pair of ponds not far, hidden now by the tall mid-spring grass. The place was overwhelmed by red-winged blackbirds and their distinctive, brilliant kreonkaleeee. I watched them for a while flitting back and forth from telephone wire to tree to tall grass, then took my binoculars and set out to find these ponds. I was attracted by some strange-looking birds, ones that I had never seen before and followed them to a large rectangular body of water, obviously man-made. I realized soon enough that these were juvenile blackbirds, not yet with their glossy black coat, but the wing bars were already distinctive. Flashes of iridescent blue caught my eye, and I spent some time watching field swallows wheeling about over the water.

These darting bolts of blue held my attention so that I was startled out of myself by a great commotion of water, wing, and air somewhere behind me. It sounded like a great tumult, coming from the other pond still obscured by the grass; but what could make such noise? I scrambled hastily through the grass in time to see rising into the air a pair of bald eagles and a great blue heron. There was almost no time to register the sight – what luck! here to stumble upon them, and the hefty majesty of the eagles strange against the elegance of the heron – and they were nearly out of sight, the eagles gaining altitude quickly on the warm air, the heron speeding toward other water and other fish. Silence then. Even the locusts had stopped. I thought that they were, like me, in awe. Then I realized that they were waiting for me to explain the authority upon which I had stumbled into this holy conference. Had I traveled to a different world? Is that why holiness seemed to hang heavy as altar smoke? I was suddenly aware of the clumsiness of my clothes and my upright gangling gait. Sobered, I walked down to the creek, took of my shoes and washed my feet and my face in the water.

I stayed for some time longer, then got in my car and returned. When I arrived back at the school it was an unfamiliar world, like one seen in the wrong end of the binoculars. I saw some of my friends in the parking lot, and we went out to get some pizza. It took a while for the haze to shake from my mind, the pond and the sun and the black spots disappearing into the sky.

“The world is charged,” says Gerard Manley Hopkins, “with the grandeur of god. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.”

And we are charged to be witnesses. We are the organ upon which the music of the spheres is played. We must only admit the breath that every day is being emitted from the world, and it will sound through us in delicate and glorious music. High and piercing, low and tremorous. Electrified, the body sings. Some call it destiny, others inspiration, to be compelled by a force that does not seem to originate from within us. It is simply what happens when we tune our antennae. We are a speaker which resonates with the frequencies that whirl around us, a multitude of trees falling in a multitude of forests.

There are things that I would like to write. I would like to write about the way the hawk wheels on his wings, and his shadow scatters the birds. I would like to write about the way the evening settles in, with its blanket of lilac and makes the beer sweat. I would like to write about the desert. Most of all, I would like to write about religion, but this is the thing that I know the least about. To be clear: I know all about religions. Not as much as some, but enough. I know about the ascendancy of myth, about the liturgical dramas of word and ritual that arose to tell those myths. I know about the crosses that people bow down to. I know about the gods and goddesses and about God and Godde.

But I do not know about religion, which is what the hymn-writer wants who wrote “give me that old time religion.” I know about having a faith, but not about having faith. Someone once said, “God, I do not love thee. I do not want to love thee. But I want to want to love thee.” Thrice-removed faith.

Does this seem somewhat bloated? Perhaps it is a little, or more than a little. What does faith matter? Faith may not be something which can be seized or held on to. I have always thought that faith is like the docking station between the human and the divine. “Faith is being certain of what is unseen,” which is taken to mean, “Believe in this thing which you do not have evidence to believe in,” or “Have a feeling when you whisper to yourself the name ‘God,’ and then call that feeling God.”

Did Jesus always have constant consciousness of the presence of God? It says that he was “like us in every way, tho was without sin.” If there is no experience of doubt, how could he be like us? But it also says that “we shall be like him,” and that he is the “first fruit.” Perhaps then it is not that Jesus did not doubt, but that he did not despair in doubt; though he slogged through this human swamp he was not mired in non-being as we are. He suffered the same confusions that we all experience as we move through the phases of childhood, adolescence and adulthood, but unlike us he was not confused about his confusion. He bore it honestly and authentically, without apology and without pretension. I think that I let my doubt sit in my stomach like a stone, it distracts my attention, I stumble over it. There may be a time when faith is like a pen writing words across the page of our mind – we look, and there it is. There may be times when faith is like a fire, far away, which we can see but there is no warmth.

In the woods

i spent some time in the woods today in silence and was rewarded by a hummingbird far from feeder or flower darting to and fro among the pines

the lilac bush in my path held my feet fast no matter how hard i struggled to escape like a bug enraptured by the light and it lingers still

patient old oak tree
little squirrel makes more noise
than you thought he could

the river in the tree

“The lawn is full of south and the odors tangle, and I hear today for the first the river in the tree.” ~emily dickinson

What a delight, to have one’s eyes opened, to see the pure form within ever-constant change. William Styron, reflecting on his mental illness, writes of a contralto passage from a Brahm’s rhapsody:

“This sound, which like all music – indeed, like all pleasure – I had been numbly unresponsive to for months, pierced my heart like a dagger, and in a flood of swift recollection I thought of all the joys the house had known.”

The fog thick as a blanket, one note like a shaft of sun, a comrade in white sent from heaven to minister to the sick, dying man, stranded on the battlefield of depression. There are weights that press against our chest for so long that we no longer notice they are there until they are suddenly lifted. When the ball and chain fall away, we may feel like dancing, but afraid that we do not know how. No wonder that for some time our shoulders may still droop, and our feet may still drag.

There are these things that call us back to life, and in so doing bequeath in us a new awareness of deep, abiding beauty. There is nothing like being grateful for the one bird singing outside our window, for the one child laughing, for the one note played piercingly high. There are these things that come uninvited to our darkened hearth, and bring their light and charm with them.

I could cry salty tears
Where have I been all these years
Little wow, tell me now-
How long has this been going on?

There were chills up my spine
And some thrills I can’t define
Listen sweet, I repeat-
How long has this been going on?

Oh, I feel that I could melt
Into heaven I’m hurled
I know how Colombus felt
finding another world.

Kiss me once, then once more
What a dunce I was before
What a break, for heaven’s sake!
How long has this been going on?

Canoe to nowhere

Coreander: Have you ever been Captain Nemo, trapped inside your submarine while the giant squid was attacking you?

Bastien: Yes.

Coreander: Weren’t you afraid you couldn’t escape?

Bastien: But it’s only a story.

Coreander: That’s what I’m talking about. The ones you read are safe.

Bastien: And that one isn’t?

It was Descartes, I believe, who said “As much as you are able, once in your life, you should doubt everything.” He’s right. Faith worth having can survive any assail of doubt, if the doubt is honest (insincere doubt has got to be the worst thing in the world; it turns people into sickly, self-admiring, cynical creatures).

I would add to Descartes’ advice: as much as you are able, once in your life, you should risk everything. Again, if the risk is sincere–if it has in mind a pearl which is worth the price being paid. Doubt is risky, if we have put all our money on the belief that is being doubted. It is a cognitive type of risk  It is different from the risk of, say, moving to Philadelphia to pursue an art career, a move that carries more uncertainty than certainty, and may not come to pass. Whatever dream is worthy of investing everything to attain.

Certainty of death… small chance of success… what are we waiting for?

Risk is, well, risky. There are 90 feet of space between first and second base, 90 feet of liminal space where we aren’t here and we aren’t there, and we have a good chance of being caught in a run-down. Our arrival is not guaranteed. It’s no wonder that most of us prefer to stay put on first base. If someone is able to coax us to second with a slap single than that is fine, but to take it upon our own shoulders to get there (because they may very well not hit the ball) is something else altogether. But we’ll get back to the dugout somehow. Either we stand on first until our chances are all gone, we go for it and get caught, or by the grace of God we go for it and we make it home.

Risk makes us vulnerable. We are exposed. Our safety net is pulled away. We are in danger of physical or psychological harm, maybe even annihilation. Our evolutionary heritage has left us both cautious of danger and quick to face it. We have a sense that good things, like elephant meat, require risk. And those that survived those risks left us with a penchant for leaps of faith and lucky strikes.

And what about the lonesome hominid staring out in the vast expanse of an ocean who in a fit of holy insanity outfitted a canoe for a long voyage to nowhere and ended up hands and knees on a Polynesian shore? Now we are talking about a real leap of faith. Now we are talking about the treasure hidden in the field for which the man sells all that he has to buy; now we are talking about the one lost sheep, for which the man will leave his 99 and go to look for it; now we are talking about the kernel of wheat which, to bear fruit, must first fall to the ground and die. And now we are talking also about the rich young ruler who went away sad, because the price of the kingdom of God was too steep. Count the cost.

The liminal space, the passage way, the wilderness. Certainty and understanding are stripped away. Here is a place of thieves and snakes. Here you meet God, but not the God that you knew; here God appears as a monstrosity, unfamiliar, unknown, and disturbing. If you return, you will be changed. The end can not be seen from the beginning; this is why it is risk. And who you are in the end will not be who you are in the beginning. But when the shaking ceases, that which is unessential falls away; that which is permanent remains.

Today a symbol fell from heaven, carrying with it evidence of both its origin and its destination. Sandwiched in between a flash of red and a blade of grass, or between laughter and silence, or between the sunlight and the forest floor. There is no sense of why or how, but only whence and whereto. Today, the dandelions floated by from a lawnmower, like a special effect for the afternoon reverie, so I could sink deeper into a daydream.

Why?

There is a time for ‘why.’ Follow that daisy chain further and further back into your metaphysical past. Ask, answer, ask again, to infinity and beyond. Then, finally, when your tongue is swollen, give yourself the silence that you could have learned from the beginning. Do not interrogate the portents from heaven that fall on your lap. There is a neuron in your brain that understands this matter, without speech. Do as it says. If you must speak, know that speech is only the background noise to the efforts of your mind.

There is a time for speech. Speak to others, who do not understand, who desire to understand, who need to understand. Speak to yourself who does not understand, who desires to understand, who needs to understand. Speech fills up our hesitation. When our conscious mind is at a loss and grasping for sense, sending its tentacles into the air to find some purchase, speech coaxes it on. Silence unnerves it. Speech soothes it. There is a time for speech.

And there is a time for silence. Listen to that portent from heaven, that flash of red against the winter white, that dapple of sunlight on the forest floor. Listen, for a long long time. Then get up, and go.